Ren’s brain no longer fits in his skull. It must be monstrously swollen – he can feel it bursting against the side of his skull. If the skull doesn’t break soon and release the pressure he’s going to die from the pain and the nausea. If he was capable of movement he’d dash his head against the wall to try to break his skull to let his brain expand. Even if that doesn’t work at least it might knock him unconscious, and give him a few more hours respite.
There is no longer vision. Or sound. Or touch. Non-existence is now upon them, obliterating them from history. They no longer exist, not even in a possible world. They are no longer even logically possible. Even the rules of logic have been altered by this blinding pain. Everything has been changed by it. No, nothing has been changed, because those old things never really existed. They’re not real, and never were. Only this pain is real. The pain is all there is. Either it exists, or there is nothingness. Ren wants there to be nothingness. No pain, no Ren, just nothing. Everything must go.
But he knows the pain is winning. He isn’t strong enough to defeat it. He wishes it would just kill him. But it’s too clever for that. It’s just stopping short of killing him, to prolong the agony for as long as possible. I give up, Ren says to it. I’ll admit to whatever you want if you just stop. I’ll sign the confession papers sight unseen, Mr Yezhov. I’ll never touch the demon juice again if you’ll just quit it. I’ll never drink again anyway. Why do I put this poison in such toxic amounts into my body? What sort of lunatic would do such a harmful thing to themselves in the supposed name of pleasure? Perhaps if I can just cut this part of my brain out things will be all right, like Rialto Magnussen does to rats. No doubt I won’t be quite the same afterwards – I should have gone to Rialto’s talk to see what it does to the rats – but at the moment that’s a price I’m willing to pay.
Ren goes on thinking like this for a while, when the realisation starts to dawn that he’s not in his own bedroom. He doesn’t dare open his eyes yet, but he can tell by the way the bed feels, the smell, even the acoustic ambience, that this is someone else’s place. Whose? He doesn’t remember much from the time he bought a second round of triple vodkas for himself and Miles. There’s a hazy memory of some tequilas after that, and that’s about it. He’s broken his own rule of not getting hammered in the student bar, although at this time of year it doesn’t really matter because the only students who were around were the graduating third-years who are leaving. But who on Earth would go to bed with someone as drunk as he must have been? Someone equally drunk? Or someone who really, really fancied him?
He hears the door open. ‘Ren?’ says a female voice. It jolts him, because he thinks he recognises it, and because it’s like soothing honey being poured over his injured brain. It’s definitely the voice of Wren English. He’s gone to bed with the delectable Wren English and he can’t remember? She comes over to the bed, and strokes his head. That hurts, but he doesn’t want her to stop. ‘I’ve brought you a coffee and some painkillers in case you need them.’
Ren can’t talk yet, but he wants to see her, and he wants those tablets, so he rouses himself to roll over and open his eyes. She’s dressed in respectable clothes, and looks gorgeous, if a little crumpled. He takes the tablets and gets a bit of coffee down him.
‘You may not remember me saying this now, but my parents will be here soon. We agreed it would not be the best idea for them to find me in bed with one of my lecturers.’
‘Srakofta. Bznejus,’ says Ren. He’s not even sure what these words were supposed to come out as. But he is trying to indicate his agreement. He tries again. ‘Howzoon?’ It comes out croaky, but audible as English.
‘Could be ten minutes. Could be half an hour.’
‘Szofajedon,’ he says. He tries very, very hard to move. Very slowly his body responds. In three minutes time he has managed to sit up on the bed.
Wren watches him with amused delight. ‘Poor baby,’ she says, stroking his back. ‘I knew I should have dragged you off before you drank all that whisky. Still, didn’t do you any harm, did it?’ she says suggestively.
It least it sounded like I was up to it, Ren thinks. The funny thing is that even though he feels as bad as any man ever has done outside the battlefield or the torture chamber, he still wants to ask Wren if he can have a quick look at her naked body. What’s stopping him is not the impending arrival of her parents, but the fact that he doesn’t want her to twig that he can’t remember a thing about last night.
In two more minutes he is getting his clothes on. Having lewd thoughts about Wren has woken him up some more, and given him enough adrenaline, or some sort of chemical rush, to enable him to temporarily ignore the pain in his head. Before he can get his pants on he has grown a massive hangover erection, and an intense desire for Wren that seems to be transmitting directly into the pleasure centres of her brain.
‘Oh God,’ says Wren. ‘We have to meet up after my parents go later today. Okay?’
Ren can only nod dumbly as Wren starts to manipulate him. ‘Better get dressed. Got to stop this now,’ she says, without stopping. Then she takes a deep breath, shudders, and stops. Ren tries to get his trousers on. Just as his brain feels like it wants to burst out of his skull, so to does his schlong feel like it wants to burst out of whatever is stopping it getting bigger and bigger forever.
‘Is that going to fit in?’ she says.
‘I’ll just focus on my headache. That should put a stop to things,’ says Ren as he completes his penile deorsumversion with difficulty.
She pushes him out the door with a kiss. Once the door closes he straight away feels worse. His desire collapses, and so does his body. His headache comes back with a vengeance, and an unseen person throws a sleep blanket over him. He’s not even sure he’s going to make it out onto the street. There are stairs to be navigated. He goes down two flights, and the bottom is still not in sight. How big is this apartment block? He can’t walk another step at the moment, so he lies down on the floor to have a quick rest.
The next thing he knows is he’s being poked. He can feel someone jabbing a finger into his shoulder. Or maybe it’s a stick. Perhaps they’re keeping their distance from him.
‘Are you all right?’ he hears a woman say in a fairly posh, middle-aged voice.
‘Fuggoff,’ Ren says, not really conscious. ‘Hangover. Godda sleep.’
‘I told you it would be a drunk,’ says the male equivalent of the earlier voice. ‘Thank God Wren is leaving this awful place.’
Ren rolls over onto his side, away from the direction of the voices, so that his face is against the wall and hidden from view. A little later he hears more voices.
‘There he is,’ says the woman’s voice. ‘Disgraceful. Drunks lying on the floor. How I wish you had gone to Durham like I said you should.’
‘There were a lot of end-of-degree parties last night,’ he hears Wren saying. ‘Some of the inexperienced students overdid it. But it’s not that bad here.’
‘He looks a little old to be a student,’ says the male voice.
‘A postgrad, I expect,’ says Wren. Thankfully her voice is getting fainter. ‘Some of them live on nothing but wine and cheese, which has certain effects.’
A little later he dreams of hearing Zack Paddlemore talking.
‘Now that you’ve finished your degree,’ Zack is saying, ‘you’ll have more time to come around and see me in my flat.’
‘I don’t know about that, Zack,’ says a female voice. ‘I’m going to be pretty busy this summer.’
‘What have you got on?’ says Zack, his voice getting mysteriously louder.
It dawns on Ren that this Zack is real, and he’s coming up the stairs towards him. He rolls closer to the wall and hides his face and head as best he can, hoping Zack won’t recognise him, or his clothes.
‘I’ve got a Tai Chi class I do, and… Oh.’
‘Someone’s had too much to drink last night,’ says Zack. He sounds like he’s glad that someone is making him look good. That doesn’t happen too often.
‘Should we check if he’s okay?’
‘If you want him to vomit all over you, yes,’ says Zack.
The voices fade and then disappear. Later on Zack comes back and rolls him over, saying, ‘You want to see something funny, come and see Ren in disgrace.’ Zack picks him up and drags him up the stairs to his flat. He can feel his head hitting each step. This has got to be a dream. But he can feel his head being bumped for real. Or is he imagining that? He tries very hard to put his a hand up to his head to check, but Zack is dragging him too fast for him to move his hand there. He knows Zack is going to dismember him if he gets him into his flat.
But will Zack ever get there? The apartment block is too high. Every moment another inch is added to the distance that needs to be traversed. Ren digs down into the moments, dividing them further and further, and more and more inches get added. Soon there will be too many inches for Zack to complete in his lifetime.
Then he and Zack are lost, swimming around in the infinitesimal moments. There are more and more of them being created all the time as the existing ones divide. Getting out will be impossible. He tries to cling on to a moment, but it splits on him, dividing into two smaller moments. He makes a grab for one of them, but that splits too, and again, and again. It’s like trying to climb up a mountain of cornflakes. They are lost in a sea of infinity. They are so lost that all talk of being lost becomes almost meaningless. He is being reduced to a point. A point with no point.
He has no idea how much later it is when Wren shakes him awake.
‘Ren, wake up,’ she says. ‘I can’t believe you’ve been sleeping on the stairs the whole time.’
‘Well,’ says Ren, looking around for any sign of Zack, and taking a second to regain his composure, ‘I couldn’t remember which flat you lived in. And I don’t know your phone number. So I thought it best to just wait for you here.’
Wren gives him an indulgent smile. Ren gets up pronto, pretending that he’s in better shape than he really is. He realises that he’d better be in good shape, because Wren, no Daphnean maid she, is desquamating as they walking along the corridor, first her shirt buttons, and then, before she puts the key in the lock, unclasping her bra in the middle to expose her euphoric globes. Ren’s conscious mind is saying that he should be in hospital, not having relations, but his disco stick, it appears, has other ideas. ‘You just lie back and rest, rummy’ it says, ‘and let me do the work’.
Later on they’re having some food. Ren is fantasising about having a long-term relationship with Wren. He can see them buying a house together, having beautiful kids, and growing old together. Maybe one day he’d even tell her parents that it had been him on the stairs all those years ago. Maybe they’d have already worked that out for themselves. But he’s knows it’s not going to happen. For one thing, their names are heterographs. She thinks that’s cute and says she knew it meant that she eventually had to go to bed with him, but how could he go through life with a wife who has the same name as him, verbally speaking? Wouldn’t the marriage be destined to end up like Evelyn and Evelyn Waugh? He can’t go through life with everyone calling them He-Ren and She-Wren. Also, she’s going to live in Manchester in nine weeks, when she starts a job. Manchester is a difficult place to get to from Grayvington, and vice versa.
Another thing is that, while he may be prone to highly immature behaviour for a man of his age, he doesn’t want to hang around with people in their early twenties, which all her friends will be. And because she’s still so young she might be a very different person in a year or two. She probably will be after living in Manchester for a few years. She may even mature quickly, and soon find him too immature for her.
‘I presume the Philosophy department didn’t offer too many opportunities for sexual fantasy amongst the young ladies,’ says Ren. ‘I mean, Grant Kapshar, Walter Clutterbuck, Bill Porterfield…’
‘You’ve left out the younger ones,’ says Wren, smiling. ‘But yes, you’re right. There was nothing like Miles in Psychology with his hundreds of fans wetting the seats in excitement like at a Beatles concert. Simon Pastygill is weedy. Tristram York only appeals to frigid intellectuals girls, and they aren’t too many of them at Grayvington.’
‘Plenty of frigid intellectual women in the faculty.’
‘I’m talking about students, silly.’
‘Students, right. Well, there aren’t many intellectuals full-stop amongst the students.’
‘Then there’s Panos, he is good-looking but he thinks he’s a pinup. He’s too old to be wearing tank-tops to class. The left-wing girls like Tony Shaver, though.’
‘But not Derek Lucas, I hope.’
‘Not generally. But I suspect there are a few who do. It’s the big, bold personality, and he does have a sort of old-fashioned revolutionary chic charisma about him. But you haven’t asked about yourself.’
‘Modesty forbids. Also, the answer either way is going to be unsettling.’
‘You have a few. It’s not just me. But you are a bit of a smart-aleck. You try to hide it in class, but everyone can tell it’s there. Some girls don’t like that. They find it threatening.’
‘But you don’t mind?’
‘A man without cheek is not a man at all, in my view.’
‘This man is going to get between your cheeks. Right now.’
Eventually they decide that what they will do is stay together for nine weeks and have the dirtiest sex possible for every available minute of that time. Ren was supposed to have finished a book chapter by then, but he figures he’ll have at least forty more years to write book chapters, whereas he’ll only have about five, possibly ten, more years to do this sort of thing, because after that he won’t be attractive to lascivious members of the young nubilia any more. For now he’d rather be between the cheeks than between the covers.